PLA filament is by far the most popular material used in FDM 3D printing, and there’s a good reason for that. It comes in many shades and styles, making it ideal for a wide range of applications. Whether you’re looking for vibrant colors or unique blends, PLA filament is an easy-to-use and aesthetically pleasing material.
In the following guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about PLA filament, from how it’s made to the optimal print settings. We’ll start you off with an in-depth look at the various blends of PLA filament on the market. Next, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about PLA filament, taking you on a journey from how the material is made to the best post-processing methods.
After we get you up-to-speed on all the aspects of PLA filament, we’ll take a comprehensive dive into how PLA differs from ABS filament.
If you want to check out the diverse group of blends, or just jump right into our expansive section about how PLA filament compares to ABS, you can skip ahead by clicking the links below:
Otherwise, get that mental nozzle warmed up and ready, it’s time to extrude knowledge on everything you need to know about PLA filament.
The diversity of blends, colors and even flavors of PLA filament is seemingly endless. That’s why we put together a list of the most exciting types you can buy. We didn’t include color variations because most colors of the spectrum are available.
Don’t Miss: 2019 3D Printer Filament Buyer's Guide
All wood PLA filament blends on this list have in common that they can be post-processed very nicely. By using sandpaper, you will be able to give your prints nice, smooth surfaces with visible grain patterns from the wood fiber.
As for the metal powder infused PLA filament blends on this list, they can be polished up to a reflective metallic shine with the use of some steel wool. All gold and silver blends we found don’t contain particles of these metals. We didn’t put them on this list, as they are merely color variations.
Important Note: Please read the product descriptions carefully before you buy any of these filaments to make sure you have the right equipment and the advised setup. Not all of them are easy to handle.
Description: It’s green, environment-friendly, biodegradable and feels similar to sandstone. It needs less energy to 3D print this material because the printing temperature is lower than with regular PLA. And this PLA filament is also stronger than most other PLA filaments.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and algae harvested from areas where its excess threatens the environment.
Special property: Sustainable.
Description: Aluminum is lightweight. This PLA filament will give your 3D printed objects a cool aluminum look.
Consists of: Polylactic acid infused with finely ground aluminum powder.
Special property: Lightweight material. Can wear and tear your 3D printer nozzle.
Description: Bamboo wood PLA filament offers stunning looks and emits a nice wood smell into your printing workshop. 3D printed objects even feel just like bamboo wood.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and bamboo fibers.
Special property: Looks, feels and smells like bamboo wood.
Description: Have you ever imagined to 3D print with beer? No joke, it’s possible. This PLA filament is manufactured using the byproducts of beer brewing that would otherwise go to waste. During and even after printing, it will smell slightly malty which makes it great for beer lovers and people who like to try out new materials.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and byproducts of beer brewing.
Special property: Smells malty (just what we expected).
Description: When people think of birch trees, they often think of the nice hardwood that will fuel your campfire for hours or the thick water resistant bark used in the crafting of canoes. However, now you can 3D print with birch wood, too. This PLA filament is light brown in color and feels and smells like real birch wood.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and birch wood fibers.
Special property: Feels and smells like birch wood.
Description: Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. This makes it softer than bronze and copper. Therefore brass PLA filament must be treated with extra care to ensure best 3D printing results. It can be polished to a nice brass metallic shine.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and brass particles.
Special property: Looks and feels like brass. But be careful: it’s abrasive to 3D printer brass nozzles.
Description: Bronze is an alloy of mainly copper and tin. This makes Bronze PLA filament a little bit harder than the one containing brass. It can be polished to a nice metallic shine.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and bronze particles.
Special property: Looks and feels like bronze. Also, this is known to be a tough material to print. After some spools, you might need a new brass nozzle for your printer.
Description: The carbon fibers contained in this PLA filament make the 3D printed object very rigid, making it an excellent choice for RC hobbyists and components that need that extra rigidity. However, the carbon fibers, will, over time, wear out the inside of your nozzle causing unexpected costs. It is recommended you use a hardened steel nozzle.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and carbon fibers.
Special property: Known for rigid 3D printing results.
Description: Cedar is a very aromatic wood. 3D printing with it will surely make your workspace smell like it. The cedar particles give this PLA filament a light red/orange color.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and cedar wood fibers.
Special property: Feels and smells like cedar wood (we love that smell).
Description: This PLA filament is dark brown and looks and feels just like real coconut hardwood. Coconut wood PLA filament offers a great advantage: Coconut trees grow in a wet, tropical climate. As a result, the wood has become more resistant to moisture. This is great if you want to subject your wood prints to outside weather.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and coconut wood fibers.
Special property: Looks and feels like coconut wood.
Description: This PLA filament emits a very pleasant aroma during the printing. The finished 3D printed objects show a grainy dark brown surface. The only PLA filament we found containing coffee is from Proto-pasta. Fortunately, at the same time, it withstands higher temperatures. (We like our coffee hot!)
Consists of: Polylactic acid and byproducts from coffee production.
Special property: Smells like coffee, especially when printed.
Description: Not sure what your favorite color is? This material changes its color depending on its environment. There are two types of color changing PLA filament. The first kind is heat sensitive, and the other one is UV sensitive.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and light sensitive particles.
Description: It‘s what you need if your 3D printing project requires some electrical wiring. Instead of running wires through your build, you can just print them. This PLA filament is a mixture of polylactic acid and usually some form of carbon; mostly graphene. It’s no substitute to a regular PCB, though.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and carbon.
Special property: Conductive.
Description: Looks like copper, feels like copper, can be polished like copper, but unfortunately, this PLA filament isn’t conductive like copper even if it contains fine copper powder.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and copper particles.
Special property: Looks and feels like copper. Be careful with nozzle abrasion!
Description: Cork fibers are mixed with the biodegradable polylactic acid to create a dark brown material that compliments the colors of other wood PLA filaments nicely.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and cork wood fibers
Special property: Looks like cork wood. Don’t print cork filament too hot!
Description: Ebony wood is especially beautiful and is often used for the fingerboards on guitars, violins, and cellos. The ebony fibers make this PLA filament very dark.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and ebony wood fibers.
Special property: Looks, feels and smells like ebony wood.
Description: In the best case this material is stretchy and rubber-like. It’s best suited for objects that need to bend and stretch to fit into spaces or around other objects. Phone cases and kids toys are good examples. In the worst case, it’s merely less brittle than pure polylactic acid.
You have to read the product description carefully and do several test prints. In most cases, the manufacturers don’t tell you what they have added to get it flexible. If you aren’t attached to PLA, you should also take a look at TPE/TPU based filament types instead.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and unknown additives
Special property: rubber-like and bendable.
Description: We all know how bright fluorescent highlighters are. Apart from that, they just look nice. To achieve these vibrant colors, pigments are added to this PLA filament. You don’t need to apply sunlight to these print (also, they don‘t glow in the dark).
Consists of: Polylactic acid and fluorescent pigments
Special property: fluorescent
Description: It’s a unique addition to the ever-diversifying range of PLA filaments. If you don’t know any applications, then ask your 5-years-old daughter. She will come up with a lot of great ideas. It could turn out to be your favorite type yet!
Consists of: Polylactic acid and glitter particles.
Special property: Sparkly! Magical!
Description: Do you need a mysterious object for Halloween? Then this is probably the right filament for you. It contains highly concentrated phosphorescent pigments to allow this material to charge during the daytime and glow magnificently in the dark. It also is known to be an abrasive material, so better check your 3D printer nozzle.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and phosphorescent pigments.
Special property: Glowing in the dark.
Description: This PLA filament contains real hemp fibers. It offers a dark, often non-consistent, color. The hemp is grown without the use of herbicides and pesticides, which is the main selling point for this product. Read this article if you want to know more about it.
Consists of: Polylactic acid, hemp fibers, and zero THC.
Special property: looks and feels like hemp plants.
Description: This material can be exposed to much higher temperatures than pure PLA and it’s much tougher. That’s thanks to the addition of minerals which crystallizes when the material has been heat-treated after printing. Heat-treatment can be done in hot water or an oven. Please refer to the manufacturer for precise instructions.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and minerals.
Special property: Resistant to higher temperatures. Not an easy material to 3D print with.
Description: The advantages of this PLA filament are high strength combined with low shrinkage and low warping. It’s aimed towards more industrial applications, but anyone can print with this material. It’s marketed as In-PLA by Taulman. If you’re looking for a strong material which is moderate to print you should also consider PETG.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and an unknown polymer.
Special property: High strength, needs to be printed at high temperatures.
Description: This material is simply magnetic! It is a blend of polylactic acid and finely ground iron powder. As iron rusts so does this iron-infused material. So be sure to store the coil and any printed objects in dry places or on the door of your refrigerator.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and iron particles.
Special property: Magnetic. As with any metal PLA filaments, it can wear and tear your 3D printer’s nozzle.
Description: The olive wood particles contained in this PLA filament, make it look, feel and smell like real olive wood. It’s dark in color with a greenish brown appearance.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and olive wood fibers.
Special property: Looks, feels and smells like olive wood.
Description: The material is light brown in color and looks and feels like pine wood. This PLA filament contains real pine wood particles to make it aromatic. There is also an extra aromatic variation that uses ground up pine needles instead.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and pine wood fibers or pine needles.
Special property: Feels and smells like pinewood.
Description: Do you like the characteristics of ABS, but want a biodegradable material? This PLA filament contains Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), which is environment-friendly and malleable like ABS. Unlike ABS, this PLA filament does not have a warping problem.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and Polyhydroxyalkanoate.
Special property: Like ABS, but without warping problems and biodegradable.
Description: This is an interesting 3D printing material. Polyester PLA filament, marketed as Floreon, is polylactic acid on steroids. It is up to four times stronger than pure PLA and is not susceptible to UV light either. All this is achieved while maintaining the typical characteristics like biodegradability and low-odor printing. If it is about strength and flexibility and not biodegradability you should also take a look at PETG, Nylon and Polycarbonate.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and polyester
Special property: Strong, UV resistant, biodegradable.
Description: Improved PLA filament is sold under many different names and brands. Sometimes it’s worth the extra money, but often it’s just marketing waffle. There is no guarantee. You have to find out which is the PLA filament yourself. Our recommendation: read carefully what advantages they are promising and check yourself if it’s true. It’s more likely to get the promised results if you stick to the established brands like Colorfabb, Innofill, etc.
Consists of: Polylactic acid and magic.
Special property: Promise better 3D printing results
Description: Silk-like PLA is a supremely funky entry for the ‘S’ in this A to Z of PLA filament. Many filament makers offer it, but two that have built a reputation for colorful blends of it are Amolen and Polyalchemy, who make quite possibly the prettiest, smoothest and shiniest PLA filaments going. Go vibrant and tremble before the excellence of your prints.
Consists of: Polylactic acid.
Special property: Looks fabulous, easy to print.
Description: It looks and feels like real steel because it’s much much heavier than other 3D printed objects made of regular PLA. This filament contains fine stainless steel powder (which can lead to nozzle replacement).
Consists of: Polylactic acid and stainless steel particles.
Special property: Looks and feels like real steel.
Description: It’s permeable to light, but not transparent like a window pane. This feature is great for objects you would like to light up, for example, light shades. Another cool application would be to 3D print your favorite action figures and light them up on display with LED lights. Even if this PLA filament sometimes is marketed as clear or transparent, it is merely translucent.
Consists of: Polylactic acid
Special property: Translucent.
Description: It has a light yellowish color, and it looks and feels like willow wood. And yes, it contains real willow wood fibers (probably from old cricket bats).
Consists of: Polylactic acid and willow wood fibers.
Special property: Looks and feels like willow wood.
PLA is short for Polylactic Acid, a thermoplastic polymer that is derived from renewable resources, more specifically from corn starch or sugar cane. This sets the material apart from other commonly used plastics, which are procured through the distillation and polymerization of nonrenewable petroleum reserves.
Since PLA filament is a biodegradable product, it tends to naturally break down in about three to six months. Other thermoplastic materials can take up to a thousand years to decompose, making PLA much more environmentally-friendly.
PLA material has been thrusted into the spotlight by the rise of FDM 3D printing. PLA filament is available in a wide variety of colors and blends, and innovative PLA-based materials seem to be constantly hitting the market.
Outside of 3D printing, PLA is also used to produce things like medical implants, food packaging, and disposable tableware. But inside of the FDM 3D printing sphere, PLA filament is widely thought of as an aesthetic material best used for prototyping.
To produce PLA filament, manufacturers start with a raw, granulated resin that is clear in color. The material is put into a blender-type machine, mixing it with the pigments and/or additives that produce a certain color or mechanical properties.
From there, the material is usually dried out at 60 – 80 C, which reduces the possibility of having the PLA filament pop or clog your 3D printer’s nozzle.
The granulated material goes into a single screw extruder, which is where it’s heated, mixed, and extruded into a solid filament. This filament is then placed into a warm water tank, which cools the material into a round shape. Finally, the round filament is run through a cold water tank and wound onto a spool.
PLA filament comes in two sizes for FDM 3D printing; 1.75 mm and 2.85 mm. This diameter size is determined by how fast or slow the material producer pulls the filament through the die.
There are a number of benefits to 3D printing with PLA filament, especially if you’re a beginner or looking for a frustration-free experience.
For starters, PLA filament is known to be extremely easy to print with. The material will generally flow out of your 3D printer’s nozzle without any issues, such as warping or nozzle clogging. On top of that, the print temperature for standard PLA filament is relatively low compared to other materials, making it more versatile and convenient to print with.
However, when you get into PLA blends that are fused with wood or metal materials, they become a tad bit more difficult to print with.
Another advantage of PLA filament is the high quality surface detail that it offers your 3D prints. Other materials are prone to stringiness or blobbing, but PLA manages to eliminate these potential aesthetic pitfalls. Unlike ABS, which is another popular 3D printing material, PLA filament doesn’t give off a foul odor when it’s extruded.
The reason why PLA filament comes in so many different colors and blends is because the material itself is easily pigmented. Post-processing is also easier when it comes to PLA, enabling users to improve surface quality with a little sanding and trimming.
Although materials like ABS and PETG offer certain mechanical advantages, PLA filament is nothing to scoff at. When it comes to form over functionality, PLA is a great option for rapid prototyping. The low-temperature melting point enables better surface details and sharper features compared to other commonly used materials.
Lastly, as we’ve mentioned before, typical PLA filament is non-toxic and biodegradable, making it an ideal material for environmentally-conscious 3D printer users.
Although there are numerous advantages to using PLA filament over other options, there are also a few drawbacks to the material.
For instance, PLA filament tends to deform or melt when heat is applied, making it impractical for parts that require heat-resistance. It’s also less sturdy than ABS or PETG, making it a better for aesthetic uses rather than mechanical.
PLA filament also usually has a rougher texture than other materials, despite being much easier to print with. Since the material is biodegradable, this places a shorter lifespan on any items 3D printed with PLA.
Additionally, PLA is not food-safe and is quite brittle in nature, making it more prone to breaking under stress. As with most 3D printing materials, whether or not PLA filament is the right choice is wholly dependent on what you’re planning to 3D print.
PLA filament is a great material for numerous applications. Although it lacks the mechanical properties found in other filament types, PLA is easy to print and comes in many colors and styles.
Therefore, most PLA filament types are great for visual prints and rapid prototyping, particularly in cases where the 3D printed part won’t encounter too much stress or strain.
Therefore, PLA filament is ideal for 3D printed objects that won’t be dependent on mechanical properties, durability, or degradability.
You’ll also probably want to avoid using PLA filament for 3D printed items that will be bent or twisted, such as tool handles or phone cases. This material is usually not very heat resistant, so it’s better to use a filament with better mechanical properties.
Other than that, PLA filament is a great option for nearly any other application. Some of the most popular uses for PLA includes visual models, figures and characters, low-wear toys, non-functional prototype parts, and containers.
Depending on the type or blend of PLA you’re using, the optimal print settings will be a bit different. The average PLA filament has a melting point somewhere between 180 to 200 degrees C.
The best temperature for a PLA filament that has a 1.75 mm diameter will be lower than a material with a 2.85 mm diameter. Another deciding factor in what print temperature you should input is the blend of PLA you’re using.
For instance, colorFabb’s Corkfill, which is a PLA/PHA blend, requires a printing temperature of 210 – 230 degrees C.
Although a heated bed may help with adhesion of PLA filament, it’s not necessary. This is why PLA is an especially appealing option for users with budget 3D printers, as a glue stick or painter’s tape can be used to get that first layer to stick.
You should also keep in mind that PLA has a glass transition temperature between 60-65 °C, which is the point where the plastic starts to become viscous or rubbery.
When working with PLA filament, be sure to consult with the manufacturer to figure out the optimal print settings. Since PLA comes in many shades and blends, there is no precise temperature that works for them all.
There are numerous ways to post-process PLA filament, and these methods sometimes depend on which type of PLA you’re using.
One of the most popular methods is sanding, which works wonders by smoothing out the surface layer of your 3D print. Sanding is an essential step no matter what type of post-processing technique you want to use, particularly when it comes to painting your model.
After sanding your model, you could use a primer or filler to cover any other crevices that will impact the way your paint settles on the print. Acrylic paint is the best option for PLA filament, and is generally affordable and comes in many colors.
Another option is polishing, which works especially well with special metal PLA filaments. Using some latex gloves and a polishing cloth, you can hand polish your 3D model with Tetrahydrofuran.
Compared to the toxic fumes that are emitted from ABS, PLA filament is a much safer alternative. However, that doesn’t mean that this material is completely safe.
While ABS is known to emit styrene, which is a toxic and carcinogenic chemical, PLA filament emits a benign and less hazardous chemical named lactide. Some have argued that the chemical emitted from PLA is essentially harmless.
Here’s a nice visual breakdown of what different types of filaments tend to emit. As you can see, the PLA filament in the graph mostly emits lactide, which is much less hazardous than styrene commonly found in ABS.
Either way, there’s no denying that PLA is a much safer material to print with than ABS. As long as you have some decent ventilation and a sizable workspace, you should be overly concerned about the toxicity of PLA filament.
In its most natural state, PLA filament is made from corn starch, which is generally considered food safe. But once the material is injected with additives for color or strength, this can all quickly change.
There are a few filaments out there that are marketed as being food-safe, such as KeyTech PLA. You can also check the material safety data sheet (MSDS) on your PLA filament, which will tell you about the chemical properties and whether it is FDA approved or food safe.
However, no matter how food-safe your PLA filament might be, you still run the risk of having bacteria building up between the layers. To avoid this, you can seal the surface of a 3D print with a food safe epoxy or sealant, which covers the crevices that may end up collecting these nasty germs.
Another tip is to keep your 3D printed object away from the dishwasher. Instead, you should wash with warm water and a mild anti-bacterial detergent, which will reduce the risk of bacteria and also keep your print from melting.
Lastly, you should probably get your hands on a stainless steel nozzle that is considered to be food-safe. This might be major investment for someone who’s only planning to print a couple of kitchen utensils, but the cleanliness of the nozzle is important.
Learn more: 12 Vital Facts About Food Safe 3D Printing
If you’re anything like us, you’ll probably want way more than just one spool of filament to feed your 3D printer. As we’ve stated, there are endless types of PLA filament to purchase, and all of them should be properly stored to ensure quality.
3D printing filament storage is extremely important no matter what material type you have on the spool. When left out in the open, these plastics tend to absorb water from the air, and this humidity can cause some massive problems in your 3D printing experience.
This phenomenon is called hygroscopy, which is a characteristic that makes 3D printing filament attract water molecules. For specialty filaments like Nylon and PVA, the problem can occur in just a matter of hours. Therefore both should be stored in an airtight container right away.
Although PLA filament has a longer shelf life, humidity can also eventually creep into the material, which in turn will negatively impact your prints.
Once water absorption takes place, you can face increased brittleness, diameter augmentation, filament bubbling, filament degradation, or easily breakable filament. To prevent this, you should store your PLA filament inside an airtight container or a speciality box.
There are a number of storage solutions that have been developed, and you can even build your own pretty easily.
If you’ve made it this far into the article and still find yourself asking “Where can I buy PLA filament?”… Well, shame on us. Handily, PLA is one of the most prolific 3D printing filaments around. Anywhere that sells 3D printing supplies will sell PLA. It would be unusual to not find any. For a handy jump link to suppliers that are local to you, check out the box below.
In the following section, we will take an in-depth look at the many differences between PLA filament and ABS filament. As the two most popular 3D printing filament types, it’s important to know how they compare, so that you can make the right material choice next time a big 3D printing project falls into your lap.
Here’s everything you need to know about how PLA and ABS stack up against one another.
When it comes to desktop 3D printing, the two most common filament types are PLA and ABS. Both are thermoplastics, meaning they become malleable when heated. In this way, you can use them while hot to create any shapes you want, and then let them cool to preserve those shapes forever! (Probably.)
Yet, despite the ways in which these filaments are similar, they also have a great many differences.
Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) is an oil-based thermoplastic, commonly found in (DWV) pipe systems, automotive trim, protective headgear, and toys (like Lego!). Objects printed with ABS boast slightly higher strength, flexibility, and durability than those made of PLA, at the cost of a slightly more complicated print process (complete with nasty fumes!).
So when should I use PLA, and when should I use ABS? This article aims to answer exactly that question, and in the meantime provide a fair amount of background information on both materials.
When considering whether or not to use a particular filament, the relevant information falls under one of two categories: On the one hand, you probably want to know, How easy is it to print with? And on the other hand, What will the final product look like?
With these two questions in mind, the following guide provides a detailed comparison between PLA and ABS, in particular giving
It is generally easier to print with PLA than with ABS, thus PLA filament is a natural choice for beginners. It melts at a lower temperature, tends not to warp, and (occasionally) smells like candy! That’s not the end of the story, though. Keep reading to learn just how easy it is to print with both materials…
Plastic melts when you heat it, right? Well, yeah, but not right away. In reality, the process is a little more complicated, but can be “boiled” down to these three stages:
Why is all of this so important? Because the points between the stages, the glass transition and melting temperatures, directly influence a filament’s print bed and printing temperatures. Basically, in order not to alter the print process, the print bed must be kept well below the glass transition temperature. And of course, in order to ensure that the filament is a liquid, it must be printed well above its melting temperature.
The one printing difficulty PLA presents over ABS is that it can sometimes clog or jam the printer nozzle. This occurs because PLA expands and becomes sticky when it melts. Achieving a good flow is a simple matter of fine-tuning the print settings, either through following the filament manufacturer’s instructions to the tee, or by playing around. (After all, we are having fun, aren’t we?)
ABS, on the other hand, tends to flow quite beautifully from the nozzle, likely due to its much higher print temperature.
Time for PLA to shine once again! With no special sensitivities to temperature, it requires neither a heating bed nor an enclosure. (Although, once again, they help.)
ABS is more sensitive to changes in temperature than PLA, resulting in cracking and warping if it cools too quickly. This is why a heated print bed it is absolutely necessary when printing with ABS. We also recommend using a full enclosure around the print area.
Both materials present some minor problems with first layer adhesion. In other words, they sometimes stick to the print bed. The three most common solutions involve covering the print bed with tape, glue, or hairspray. For tape, we recommend using Kapton Tape (a polyimide film with a silicone adhesive), but masking tape also works fairly well.
Ever the favorite child (in the context of printing), PLA gives off little to no smell when heated, and some even claim to have picked up on fruity or candy-like aromas…
ABS stinks. And the fumes are intense, in some cases inducing headaches! Whenever possible, print in an open (but isolated) area with proper ventilation.
Both materials are hygroscopic, meaning they attract and absorb moisture from the air. This is a negative attribute because, as levels of hydration rise, the print process degrades and print quality declines. Bubbling, spurting, and even clogging can occur at the nozzle, while discoloration and poor detailing can appear in the final product.
The bottom line: Don’t expose your filament to air (and therefore water) for long periods of time.
And that’s easily done! Simply store your filament rolls in sealed containers when not using them, and place those in cool, dry places. As an extra precaution, filament manufacturers often recommend using up rolls as soon as possible.
PLA filament may be better to print with, but is it the better material for your print? The quick answer is no, as ABS is not only stronger but more flexible and durable as well. For the long answer, well, you’ll just have to stick around…
ABS – our new prodigy – owes its toughness to polybutadiene, a synthetic rubber with a high resistance to wear. To give you an idea of just how tough this rubber is, 70% of all polybutadiene goes into the production of tires. In ABS filament, this toughness is reflected in its superior strength and high impact resistance. (Remember that it’s used in protective headgear and automotive trim!) And while not the most flexible of materials, ABS still outshines PLA, as it tends to distort, then bend, before finally breaking.
About the only thing PLA can brag about, with respect to mechanics, is a higher surface hardness. Otherwise, it exhibits only decent strength, and is brittle, preferring to break rather than bend.
In general, ABS is more durable than PLA because of its high resistance to heat. Remember that plastic no-man’s-land? That temperature range where thermoplastics are more-or-less useless? Well, thanks to a comparatively high glass transition temperature, it takes a lot more heat for ABS to reach that point than for PLA. That’s what makes it better suited for objects that remain in the sun. Because nobody wants to see a droopy-nosed garden gnome.
With respect to the other elements, ABS performs no better than PLA. When exposed to UV rays and moisture, both materials degrade over time.
One nice characteristic of PLA is that it’s biodegradable. Don’t expect it to degrade in your backyard composter (it needs heat and pressure), but feel free to add it to the compost collected by your city. ABS, on the other hand, is only recyclable.
If you’re willing to put in that little bit of extra effort to turn your print from something pretty into something beautiful, both ABS and PLA are pretty tolerant, although ABS once again comes out on top.
While both materials can be cut, filed, sanded, painted (with acrylic), and glued, it’s recommended to use primer before painting PLA, and gluing it may not always work. Additionally, only ABS can be treated with acetone (i.e. nail polish remover) to get that smooth and shiny surface, because only ABS is acetone-soluble. On the other hand, PLA is slightly more forgiving of complex design features, despite both materials being able to handle 100-micron layer heights.
The possibilities for filing, sanding, or acetone treatment are especially important to keep in mind if you’re using rafts, as they don’t always separate nicely from the rest of the print, leaving behind undesirable surfaces which you’ll probably want to clean up.
Filament for both materials come in a wide range of colors – there’s even translucent filament!
Special “exotic” filament types also exist, as blends of either ABS or PLA with other materials. The most popular varieties include wood, metal, and glow-in-the-dark. For more information on these exotic filament types, check out our 3D Printer Filament Guide.
By the way, if you’re looking for a slightly more flexible and durable filament than either PLA or ABS, take a look at PETG.
Filament for both materials have more-or-less identical pricing, with exotic filaments being a little more expensive, as you might expect.
PLA is the most widely used filament in 3D printing, not because it’s the “best” material, but because it’s easy to print with. And after all, why make life harder than it needs to be? With that idea in mind, we recommend using this 3D printer filament for anything that doesn’t have specific requirements for mechanical properties, durability, or degradability.
Remember to avoid using PLA filament for items that might be bent, twisted, or dropped repeatedly, such as phone cases, high-wear toys, or tool handles. You should also avoid using it with items which need to withstand higher temperatures, like if you want to place them in direct sunlight, a car, or the dishwasher. For all other applications, this filament makes for a good overall choice in filament. Common prints include models, low-wear toys, prototype parts, and containers.
ABS filament is better suited for items that are frequently handled, dropped, or heated. It can be used for mechanical parts, especially if they are subjected to stress or must interlock with other parts. Examples of prints which take advantage of the qualities of this filament include phone cases, high-wear toys, tool handles, automotive trim components, and electrical enclosures.
License: The text of "2019 PLA Filament Buyer’s Guide" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.